We drove down a country road until it ended at a single track lane. We proceeded slowly up the lane, pulling off at one point to allow a car to pass us as it came down. Finally we arrived at our destination, the Ironhorse winery, perched on top of a hill, surrounded by vineyards with a view across green hills. There was no fancy tasting room, just a collection of rustic, functional, barns. One of these buildings had a covered bar area which was open to the aforementioned views. The bar-top was rough wood. The apparent simplicity of this is in sharp contrast to the quality of the wines.
(California Girl Comments: What gorgeous weather we had as we drove through the Sonoma countryside to get to our destination. Ironhorse winery sits just past the cities of Santa Rosa and Sebastopol in the hills. This is off the beaten track, nowhere you would ever stumble upon by happy accident. Fortunately, we look out for these great places for you!)
Ironhorse grows two grape varietals: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In addition to making single varietal wines, it has a range of sparkling wines. We tasted these sparkling wines and the Pinot Noir; the Chardonnay will need to wait for a future visit. Our server John was knowledgable, friendly, and attentive to us and the other guests.
(California Girl Comments: I agree, John was a sweetie. He did a great job and answered all of our questions in a charming, effortless manner.)
The Sparkling Wine Tasting was $20 for five tastes; although we received a couple of additional pours that were not on the menu. (California Girl Comments: I have to say that I was surprised at the cost of the tastings as the winery was located so far out in the sticks. However, they seemed to have a booming trade and even on a weekday it was busy.)
2011 Ocean Reserve: This is their Blanc de Blanc, made for 100% Chardonnay. It sells for $50 a bottle. There were notes of lemon and had a sharp acidity and strong effervesce.
(California Girl Comments: I enjoyed this taste. Clean, bright, and fruity without being sweet; a true Brut style sparkling wine. Strawberry on the start of the palate, finishing with crisp notes of citrus.*Note: Each bottle of this sold, $5 goes to helping clean and preserve our oceans.)
2012 Wedding Cuvée: This is a blend of 78% Pinot Noir and 22% Chardonnay. It sells for $44 a bottle. Fruit and earth on the nose. Dry, but not to the detriment of the flavour. It was first made for the wedding of the owner’s daughter, hence its name.
(California Girl Comments: This taste was good, but not great for me. It had an earthy nose, and a very yeasty flavor at first sip. I did finally get flavors of peach but it just wasn’t enough.)
2011 Classic Vintage Brut: It sells for $42 a bottle. There was a nose of yeast, which fortunately was not reflected in the taste. A pleasant acidity balanced with strong hints of apple. This was my favourite of the tasting and we purchased a brace of bottles.
(California Girl Comments: Tasting this sparkling wine was the “Goldilocks” of the line-up for me. Not too dry, not too sweet, and nicely balanced. Lots of apple on the palate but not a big nose. I really did enjoy this wine, and I agree with Brit that it was the best of the line-up.)
2011 Brut X: It sells for $50 a bottle. This is 74% Pinot Noir and 26% Chardonnay. The wine is a extra-brut and the driest wine we tasted. The flavour is reminiscent of a mineral water like San Pellegrino, with underlying addition of fruit.
(California Girl Comments: The nose had a distinct floral scent followed by yeast. This was my least favorite. Minerals and earth dominate the flavor with a bone dry finish.)
2011 Russian Cuvée : The sweetest sparkling wine that they make. However, it is important to emphasize that all of their wines are on the dry-side, even this one is at most a Sec. This wine was first made for a 1985 summit meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan in Geneva. John told us that the winery likes to claim that this wine helped end the cold-war. The wine had a smooth spiciness, with a touch of yeast and a hint of strawberries. It sells for $42 a bottle.
(California Girl Comments: This was soft and smooth with the flavor of vanilla and berries. The effervescence was light and the overall body of the taste was sweeter, without being overly so. I would pair this with spicy food.)
2010 Chinese Cuvée: Released to celebrate the Chinese New Year. This was also on the sweeter side. Very fruity with hints of berry. It demonstrated a lower acidity than several of the others. (This was an off menu tastes)
(California Girl Comments: Pears and peaches, ripe fruits, and non acidic this sparkling wine really reminds me of Chinese New Year. Happy and easy and fun.)
2008 Rose: Surprisingly dark for a rose; it spends seven days in contact with the skins of the grapes, from which it gets its colour. I detected metal on the nose. It was extremely dry, possibly because of the previous two tastes, but had a complex floral palate.
(California Girl Comments: This was a strange one. It smelled of a tin of tuna. When I sipped it though, I was surprised by the nutty toasted almond flavors. I would absolutely pair this one with a fruit or a dessert.)
Moving onto the Pinot Noir menu:
(The California Girl Comments: I did not participate in the Pinot Noir tasting as someone had to be sensible and drive home. I took one for the team and sat this tasting out.)
I started with 2012 Hope Block. There was pepper and tobacco on the nose, whilst the taste was soft with low acidity. My notes on the tasting say it was “Amazing”, but I retract that assessment, for reasons that will become clear.
2012 Winery Block Pinot Noir: There was an acidity on the nose; a more traditional Pinot Noir smell. The flavour was less complex that the previous one, with greater acidity and light pepper tones.
2013 North Block: It presented spicy, floral odors on the nose. The flavour was a beautifully balanced sweet fruitless that surpassed the first Pinot and left me putting “Amazing Plus” in my notes. This was my favourite.
2013 Thomas Road Pinot Noir: A classic Pinot nose with rich earthy tones. It had more acidity on the tongue than the North or Hope Block wines; but left a beautiful berry aftertaste.
There are three big sparkling wineries in Napa Valley owned by famous French Champagne houses; Mumm, Domaine Chandon, and Domaine Carneros. All three have tasting rooms that are larger and more impressive than Ironhorse. However, only Domaine Carneros makes sparkling wines that rival the quality and variety demonstrated by those served at Ironhorse. The Pinot Noir tasting surpasses that offered at Domaine Carneros.
(California Girl Comments: Coming away from the tastings I thought a great deal about this winery and how I felt it stacks up against other sparkling wines and champagnes in its price range. To be honest, whilst I did feel like the quality was way better than what I have tasted at Gloria Ferrer and Mumm (other than a few of the special reserves), for the price you can get Moet White Star or Veuve Clicquot. So then you ask yourself why would you pay a similar price or more for something that just isn’t as good? Even Domain Carneros sells many of their sparkling wines sub $30 that can easily match what IronHorse is doing. You can get far better value.)